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Blue flower, where do you bloom?

"Ideal Worlds" at Frankfurt's Schirn Gallery evokes a newfangled yearning for old-fashioned Romanticism. A sceptical excursion in the magical landscapes of contemporary art. By Wolfgang Ullrich

textChristopher Orr, All we need is the Air that we Breathe © Christopher Orr. Courtesy Magnus Edensvärd & IBID Projects
Sheep grazing on gently rolling meadows, girls lying under leafy trees, all bathed in warm sunlight. This snapshot of Arcadia is a photograph by American artist Justine Kurland. Two of the girls have placed their feet against one another like pedals, to cycle off to virtual destinations. An attractive image of carefree diversion, an invitation to join the bike tour to paradise. But the girls are in uniform, so this idyll is plainly not outside of civilization. Maybe Socialist Realism could have come up with this kind of iconography if it had stepped beyond the glorification of collective labour to picture for a moment the world at the end of history where, we are told, we should be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and rear cattle in the evening.

Kurland's "Sheep Wranglers" is one of the few pictures that really fits the title of the exhibition in Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle. We are promised Ideal Worlds. New Romanticism as a new trend in contemporary art, discovered in studios from Berlin to Los Angeles – missing out only Leipzig, even though some of the painters currently feted there represent very similar positions to the artists presented here.

The intention was presumably to broaden the purely German perspective on contemporary painting. That is certainly to be welcomed. However, with most of the 13 artists in the show we are none the wiser about what ideals are actually being pictured here. Admittedly they do show us mountains, figures from behind and wafts of mist – but is that enough to claim the heritage of Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge?

The curators, Max Hollein and Martina Weinhart, base their postulated parallels between the artistic moods of the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries on a supposed similarity of social and political conditions. They blithely equate globalization and terrorism with industrialization and the Napoleonic Wars, identifying a generalized insecurity and alienation from which, they say, stems a need for compensation, for an intact world and safe havens. They see art as the place where the new can emerge, where solutions can grow, far from the troubles of everyday life.

textHernan Bas, Untitled (Koi Pond) © Hernan Bas. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London
This train of thought is often taken by cultural critics, but its individual steps are actually anything but solid. For a start, we must question whether the generation of 30-somethings whose works dominate the exhibition even understands the meaning of a term like "alienation". Of course this generation has its fears and escapist dreams, but it can hardly be said that that has produced a fundamental rift with the prevailing conditions, as it did in the Romantic era. Even those who are threatened by unemployment, who lost a fortune when the New Economy bubble burst or worry about what will become of their children normally live quite a satisfied life, thankful to be coddled in peace and affluence. Rather than complaining about what they lack, most members of this generation are well aware how much they have to lose.

Accordingly, today's ideal worlds hardly even take a concrete form; at best they summon up fragments of faded utopias and limit themselves to generalized and often fairly fanciless fantasies. The Frankfurt show is not immune: Uwe Henneken paints a painter painting a brilliantly coloured sky, Laura Owens has birds flying before the full moon and Karen Kilimnik retells the story of Swan Lake in an installation that looks like a stage set. This recycling of Romantic set pieces is not exactly indicative of a true affliction with the world. Instead, rather boring varieties of post-modernist habits come dressed up as new scenarios of yearning.

The exhibition's title would actually have fitted better the second – and possibly more significant – exhibition currently showing at the Schirn. "The Nazarenes" focuses on a Catholic current in Romanticism, and even after 200 years the pictures still convey the enormous energy with which that young generation set about restoring devout godliness and medieval corporatism. The thoroughness with which they banished their own lifeworld makes the Overbecks, Schadows and Passavants seem disturbingly fanatical. They were besotted with their own very concrete ideal worlds, and many of their pictures tempt the viewer to join the escape to sun-flooded landscapes and homely alleyways of little old towns, the settings for the scenes of holy life.

None of the artists of the "Ideal Worlds" show, perhaps with the exception of Justine Kurland, show anything like the same determination to seduce. Their works are much more detached. Yet there is still plenty worth seeing. Peter Doig's pictures lead us to speculate on the psychological secrets of their figures, while Christopher Orr paints experiments in cosmic DIY, whose outcome the viewer often anticipates with a smile from just a glance at the quirky protagonists. The impressively fine craftsmanship of David Thorpe's collages of paper, plants and other materials grips the viewer. Looking at landscapes occupied by deserted futuristic buildings, we are reminded of the novels of Christoph Ransmayr, and wonder whether our own spirit of adventure would come to life there – or if it might not quickly all become too creepy.

textDavid Thorpe, Out From the Night, the Day is Beautiful and we are Filled with Joy © David Thorpe. Courtesy Maureen Paley and Meyer Riegger
It is no shortcoming that the exhibits are on the whole less than overwhelming. In fact, it is a relief that the whole business is less impassioned than in the time of the Nazarenes, and that at least in the art we are spared religious revivalism. In fact, many would react with mistrust if the exhibition suddenly offered suggestive utopias and detailed well-thought-out alternatives to our present society. In no time at all words like kitsch and ideology would be being bandied about, and as long as that is enough to nip a debate in the bud, the time is not yet ripe for new ideal worlds.

So what is the hype about then? Even before it opened, the Frankfurt show gained an unusual degree of attention, and the enthusiasm with which the talk of "New Romanticism" was parroted must have reinforced the curators' belief that they had touched a contemporary nerve.

The first criticism also came months before the opening. Last autumn Harald Falckenberg, a major collector who as such often finds himself at the mercy of the art market trend gurus, was already complaining that the exhibition in Frankfurt would "have nothing to do with the historical understanding of Romanticism as an idealistic movement of renewal". Here, he said, a powerful idea was simply being "exploited and turned on its head". Instead of awkward positions showing contempt for the status quo and demanding a radical U-turn, we have the youthful hippie or gay eroticism of Kaye Donachie and Hernan Bas declared as Romanticism. But where Romantic is reduced to chill-out, the decisive element is missing. Transcendence is confused with cosiness.

For all the differences between the artists, none of them demonstrate the spirit of opposition that was central to Romanticism. It would have been better to look for references elsewhere in the history of art, for example among the artists of late-nineteenth-century Symbolism. Today's artists definitely have something in common with Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau and Arnold Böcklin, and in their less cheerful moments even with James Ensor and Edvard Munch. How unfortunate that these artists are less trendworthy than the scintillating Romantics. In fact, they were almost all very successful in their time, and were the darlings of a bourgeoisie that was already less unhappy that it pretended.

So it is nothing new to become part of the establishment but disguise the fact by surrounding oneself with pictures where everything is a bit "different" than in reality. Just as long as you can still dream a bit. Just as long as it all remains as non-committal and inconsequential as possible. In the catalogue Max Hollein himself writes of a "passion for the indefinite" that connects the artists of the Ideal Worlds.

textPeter Doig, Lunker © Peter Doig. Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
The Romantics also had a taste for landscapes blurred by unsharpness or twilight – one only needs to think of Carl Gustav Carus or Johan Christian Dahl – but at that time pictures that did without narrative, often even without decorating figures, offered the strongest imaginable contrast to the history and genre paintings that dominated the age. Indefiniteness meant bringing art closer to nature, and just like going for a walk, looking at a landscape painting was supposed to grant distance from the world of purpose and obligation and create a space for better ways of life.

So the indefinite was a political category too. Only later, as openness and ambiguity took on a life of their own, did it degenerate into non-committalism. Works of art turned into screens where anyone could project their own ideas. Vague dreams took the place of clear wishes.

Gerhard Richter, who is often mentioned in the catalogue, gives the younger generation – especially with his cloud and landscape paintings – the prototype for an art that stays so uncommitted that it fits anywhere and offends nobody. The art market rewards art of that kind, not only because it meets the wishes of a comfortable, respectable audience, but also because its non-committalism means it can be marketed at all the international fairs. Thus the works that supposedly arose as Romantic flight from globalisation actually owe their success to their globalisability. Instead of showing identifiable localities, they consist of skies, ravines and great expanses of water, and the resulting placelessness means they seem at home anywhere in the world. Often there is not even clear spatial definition, just mysterious undulation.

Here the same thing is happening – less spectacularly, more subtly – as in the pictures by popular fantasy artists, who airbrush imaginary landscapes and populate them with monsters and buxom ladies. From Harry Potter to computer games, the 57 varieties of magical flair feed different fantasies in different cultures – non-committalism for the global market.

Uwe Henneken, Burning Shadows of Silence © Uwe HennekenUwe Henneken, Burning Shadows of Silence © Uwe Henneken
That the catalogue of the Frankfurt exhibition shows largely artists from the English-speaking world but quotes mostly German Romantics shows little more than a local appropriation of global images. In the United States or Asia we could connect the same material quite differently – but just as fittingly or unfittingly – to the typical local pictorial and discursive traditions. The waterfalls and stylized natural forms of Christian Ward's paintings, which the catalogue tells us interpret the grotto where Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen discovered the blue flower, are at least equally reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts.

Presumably, globally indefinite art still needs something to hold on to. It requires explanation not in order to be understood, but in order to mean anything at all. Left to its own devices it threatens emptiness. Giving it the subtitle of Romanticism is the cleverest strategy of all. The word itself is not so much a clear concept as a screen where each visitor can project his or her own expectations of meaning.

Nonetheless we must fear that whatever qualities of form or content the exhibited works possess will be overshadowed by the fantasies unleashed by the Romantic postulate – by meaningfulness without meaning. The positions of the represented artists seem closer than they actually are. Their individual qualities – in some cases considerable – threaten to disappear.

"Ideal Worlds" can be seen at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt until 28 August. Catalogue 24.80 euros. "The Nazarenes" can be seen at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt until 24 July.


The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit on 19 May, 2005.

Wolfgang Ullrich is an art historian and teaches at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. His latest publication is "Tiefer hängen – Über den Umgang mit der Kunst", published by Klaus Wagenbach publishers.

Translation: Meredith Dale. - let's talk european